Massimo Righi

How to make a 3D wolf howl at the moon in Maya

By - - Arnold , Maya , Mudbox
6 mins
Last modification: 6 Jun, 2019
Bringing his own take on the classic howling wolf in 3D, Massimo Righi tells us about how he created his CG creature from modeling in Maya to rendering in Arnold. 

Howling Wolf

I used a polygonal modeling approach. Starting off with a plane, I extruded the edges, trying to follow a reference image. First, I made the head, then the rest of the body. I always create half of the mesh and duplicate it later.

Wolf Mesh

The UV unwrapping is always time consuming, but must be done right to ensure good texturing. I assigned a checker map to the mesh to get a better result, and used planar projections for the various mesh parts, always starting from the head. The only tools I used are 'cut and sew' edges and 'unfold.'

Next, I created a few blend shapes to test the model.

Blend Shapes

I needed a higher subdivision level to bring out some of the details in Mudbox, especially in the parts not covered by fur, such as the mouth and teeth. Next, I sculpted the model in Mudbox and extracted the normal and displacement maps.


For the textures, I used Photoshop and Mudbox. I used the same map for the skin and fur shaders.

I decided that 8k was a good enough size for what I was trying to achieve.

In Photoshop, I started to create the textures using a Wacom tablet. This resulted in a mixture of photographs and freehand painting. I used the clone tool as well as custom brushes, always switching between Maya and Photoshop while running test renders to check how the textures would behave on the model. Once happy with the Photoshop work, it was time to move the model into Mudbox and adjust the seams created by the edges where the UVs were cut during the mapping process.


For the skin shader, I used an Ai Standard Surface. I connected the color, specular and normal maps next. I created an Ai Normal Map node and linked it to the shader normal camera input.

Ai Standard Surface

I also used an Ai Color Correct node just in case I needed to directly tweak the original color, which allowed me to give it more or less contrast or saturation, without having to go back and forth between Maya and Photoshop.

I connected the displacement map to the Shading Engine node of the skin shader and tweaked the texture color balance accordingly. For example, if the Alpha gain is 1.0, the Offset should be negative half of the Alpha gain value, so -0.5. I ran a few tests to find the right value and went with 1.5 and -0.75.  I also made sure to have the 'Alpha is Luminance' box checked.

For the displacement map to show, I had to go into the main shape tab and add iterations to the Subdivision (the Arnold section of the wolf's main shape). I also had to use a catclark filter type and increase the displacement height to 1.000


For the fur, I used Joe Alter’s ‘Shave and a Haircut.”

Joe Alter's "Shave and A Haircut"

I selected the wolf mesh and created the main Shave node.

Next, I created a black and white texture and assigned it to the 'cut' tab of the Shave node. This will drive the surface where the hair primitives will grow. The white color will be the fur while the black will be the wolf’s skin and features. The map is all white except for the nose, fingertips/nails, inside of the mouth and eyes which will be full black.

I then created a greyscale map and assigned it to the shave density tab. This map is similar to the cut map, except I've added some grey gradient where I need the fur to be less dense, such as the part between the tip of the nose and the bridge, to avoid an abrupt transition.

I also combed the fur using the Brush Tool. I moved around the model, checking every part, scaling up and down and trimming the hair primitives a lot like a barber would!

Brush Tool

I repeated the process for the other fur nodes like the whiskers, tail, ears, and so forth.

I used the Hair Physical Shader as shader for the fur. I also linked it to the Hair Shader in the Arnold section of the Shave node. It’s important to remember to check the box "Override Hair" and uncheck "Opacity" in order to give the hair some nice, natural transparency.

Hair Physical Shader

I assigned the color map to the root and tip Diffuse tabs and also linked the displacement created in Mudbox to the Shave node Displacement tab.

To get a nice result, there are a few values that need to be tested and tweaked, such as "Clumps' and 'flyaway.’

For the clumps, I created a greyscale map to reduce the clump strength on the face/nose area and in some other parts such as the lower legs/paws where the fur is shorter. I then assigned the map to the Clumping Strength tab.

The flyaway is also a great way to give the hair some messiness and curl.


Setting up Lighting

As a main light, I used an HDR image applied to an Arnold Ai Skydome Light. I also added an Ai Area Light to break up the illumination flatness.

I set the camera value back to 0 in the Visibility section and created an Ai Ray Switch Arnold node and assigned it to the environment (Arnold render tab). That node will determine the background color.

Arnold Ai Skydome Light

To create the wolf’s shadow on the ground, I created a simple polygon plane and assigned an Ai Shadow Matte Arnold shader to it. Remember to uncheck the "opaque" value in the plane main shape because we must only have the shadows visible and not the mesh.


Testing the Model

Once I was satisfied with the fur, I created a few quick poses to test how the fur behaved, fine tuning the light’s position and intensity.

Creating PosesCreating Poses

Finally, I went with the sitting and howling pose it's a classic, iconic look for wolves and I’ve always loved it.

Sitting Howling Wolf


A Camera (AA5) was used for the final render. I lowered the gaussian filter width for a sharper effect.

Final Arnold Render

 Check out more of Massimo's work on AREA.

What 3D creatures will you make?

Posted By
Published In
  • Arnold
  • Maya
  • Mudbox
  • Film & VFX
  • Games
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